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The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, by Rodney Stark
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The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
By Rodney Stark
New York, N.Y.: Random House, 304 pp., $25.95
Social science has long tended to treat religion as fundamentally irrational. Never mind that scientific methods are by definition incapable of adjudicating theological propositions: Throughout the 20th century, the discipline’s leading explanations of religious belief and behavior were predicated on the assumption of irrationality. Religion, these theories maintained, is an instrument of economic oppression (Marx), a means by which societies collectively affirm their own identities (Durkheim), or a byproduct of repressed sexual and scatological urges (Freud). Wherever two or three were gathered in His name, it would seem, reason was not amidst them.
Rodney Stark has, more than any other sociologist, taken to task these reflexively reductive presumptions. He helped create a new movement within the sociology of religion, the central tenet of which is startling in its simplicity: It proposes that religious devotion may, in fact, be rational.
“Rational” refers here to rational-choice theory, which is less concerned with the content of faith than with the process through which people arrive at it. Thought culminating in faith, Stark argues, is no less logical than that culminating in atheism. In both cases, individuals weigh the costs and benefits of present action against the possibility of posthumous rewards or punishments. By recognizing these initial decisions as rational choices, Stark and his colleagues have been able to construct a theoretical model that explains the religious behavior of individuals, groups, and societies.
A fantastically prolific writer, Stark has teased out the implications of his project in a dozen books and scores of articles. He has used elements of the theory to explain everything from how Christianity prospered in the Roman Empire to why, contrary to expectation, it does not appear that a society’s increased wealth and education necessarily diminish its religiosity. The quality of his writing is not uniformly even–given the pace of his output, it could not possibly be–but his writing is entirely original, usually provocative, and always committed to exploring new avenues for research.
The Victory of Reason represents Stark’s latest essay in unpacking the implications of the rational-choice model of religion. The book assesses the contribution of Christianity to the rise of the West, and its conclusion is characteristically bold. “Christianity,” Stark asserts, “created Western Civilization.”
Stark attributes the triumph of the West to three principal accomplishments. The first was a feat of epistemology, with the development of the scientific method; the second, of politics, with the emergence of modern liberal democracy; the third, of economics, with the invention of large-scale capitalism. Each of these achievements, according to Stark, derived primarily from the formative influence of Christianity.
The foundational “victory of reason” belongs, appropriately enough, to epistemology. The scientific method emerged because of beliefs and habits that Christianity imprinted on the Western mind. Scientists, after all, assume that the universe is in some fundamental sense coherent, governed by immutable laws whose inner workings can be progressively discovered through the rigorous exercise of human intellect. Such rigor was moreover forged in the systematic study of theology, which over time conditioned Christian thinkers to subject received ideas to observation and experimentation–and the possibility of improvement. Exercising a similar gravitational pull over political philosophy was the Christian notion of the afterlife, especially its stress on the equality of souls before God. This deep-seated egalitarian principle gradually culminated in the concept of unalienable human rights, and found political expression in the institutions of liberal democracy.
Stark has previously written about how Christianity engendered science and democracy, so the bulk of The Victory of Reason intends to show how Christianity, more than any other factor, similarly sired capitalism. He recounts in considerable detail the evolution of humble business enterprises run by medieval monks into the thriving commercial city-states of Renaissance Italy. More suggestively, he traces these developments back to the so-called “Dark Ages.”
Along with a growing number of historians, Stark is inclined to view Late Antiquity as a period of remarkable commercial expansion and technical ingenuity. Measured against the Parthenon or the Coliseum, things like windmills, horseshoes, chimneys, water-wheels, stirrups, compasses, eyeglasses, swivel-point axles, and mechanical clocks may not seem particularly impressive. Nonetheless, such was the era’s humbler, but ultimately more consequential, scale of invention. The absence of large states may have invited external invasion, but it also spurred competition and fostered creativity, setting the stage for the global predominance that first became apparent in the 16th century.
Few critics would dispute that science, democracy, and capitalism contributed mightily to the ascendancy of the West–though they will contest Stark’s claim that, for each of these developments, Christianity bears primary responsibility. The idea that science was born of a Christian mindset can be traced to Alfred North Whitehead, and is perhaps the least controversial of his three lines of argument. (Stark’s characterization of Christian theology as “progressive” is open to debate, however; even those inclined to accept it will want more evidence than is provided.) More dubious is his contention that Christianity inexorably gave rise to modern democracy. Most all Christians today affirm classical liberalism, but in ages past they and their churches have just as unambiguously embraced slavery and the divine right of kings.
Was Christianity crucial for, or merely coincident with, the advent of capitalism? Many medieval monasteries were commercial movers-and-shakers, to be sure, and finance was indeed pioneered in Florence. Stark rightly notes that certain Christian virtues lend themselves to business, and that moral theologians quickly learned to circumvent Scriptural proscriptions on interest-bearing loans. None of this, however, demonstrates the substance of his central claim. Evidence of a tight causal relation between Christianity and capitalism remains conspicuously lacking.
Likewise notable by its absence is any attempt at a sustained investigation of Judaism. Stark mysteriously writes off Jewish speculative theology as narrowly legalistic, thereby discounting a tradition as broad and deep as the Christian, and considerably older than it. His silence regarding the massive contributions of Jews to science, politics, and capitalism is simply inexplicable.
Even Stark’s depiction of Christianity itself is problematic. Is it really fair to treat Christianity’s sundry creeds as a single, undifferentiated entity? A theologian may claim to see the seamless, eternal essence of the Church, but a historian must be a bit more circumspect in treating a group whose boundaries–from Arians to Unitarians–have not always been readily discernible to contemporaries. The bright, clear lines that Stark everywhere sees begin to seem a bit too easy.
Perhaps some of Stark’s simplifications result from an inevitable tendency of the sociological discipline. Stark is, after all, a social scientist, albeit one writing about history. Like any scientist, he hopes to find a theory that achieves maximal explanatory power with minimal qualification. Scientists delight in the elegant economy of their equations; historians, by contrast, cherish the lush density of their footnotes. But differences in disciplinary styles are not enough to relieve Stark’s thesis from the charge of being unduly monocausal.
Now, monocausal explanations may be incomplete, but that does not necessarily make them wrong. Stark’s basic thesis points to something quite profound, for it is absolutely certain that “the modern world arose only in Christian societies.” Christianity undeniably fathered Europe, and its contributions, especially its positive contributions, merit much greater attention than they usually receive. That this fact enrages Stark’s most virulent critics–Alan Wolfe, writing in The New Republic, called The Victory of Reason “the worst book by a social scientist that I have ever read”–suggests that Stark has presented a possibility they would rather not entertain.
The Victory of Reason is best read as exaggeration in the service of correction. Its thesis provokes serious thought and therefore deserves serious consideration. Much good is to be found in its wealth of detail, particularly in its survey of the creative ferment of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It is furthermore perfectly logical to conclude that Christianity was a decisive force for much good in the modern world. Yet the proposition that Christianity alone is responsible for the many blessings of modernity does not stand to reason.
Christopher Levenick is the W. H. Brady doctoral fellow at the AEI.
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